By Pascale Bonnefoy M. (Lea el artículo original en español aquí)
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (I): Bodies at dawn
- READ MORE: Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (III): From the morgue to the cemetery
While the First Military Prosecutor’s Office ordered two of the main medical examiners at the Santiago morgue to perform an autopsy outside the morgue on the corpse of President Salvador Allende on the night of the military coup, the military bureaucracy began to set up shop inside the Servicio Médico Legal (SML).
Dr. Alfredo Vargas Baeza had been director of the SML for almost 20 years, but he was not in Chile on September 11. He had been on a legal holiday since June 23 and should have returned on September 3. However, for reasons of force majeure not explained in the documentation of the time, he was unable to return and was still in Europe.
During his absence his replacement, Dr. Augusto Torrico Rojas, a Bolivian psychiatrist with leftist ideas evidently was not to the liking of the new military authority. In a decree on October 10, the Military Junta informed that retroactively, as of September 25, Dr. Óscar Novoa Allende assumed as interim SML director, “until further decision of the Government Junta.”
However, Dr. Novoa, a doctor from the civilian staff of the Military Hospital and the Clinical Department of the SML, had been installed in the Director’s office even before his designation. He assumed the position de facto as of September 11, leaving Dr. Torrico in his original position as head of the Psychiatry Department, former SML legal advisor Gilberto Rudolph told ArchivosChile.
To the surprise of many of the staff, the person who appeared after the military coup in field uniform giving orders inside the morgue was Dr. Sergio Larraín Eyzaguirre, an Army major who had been working at the SML for more than 20 years.
Larraín was appointed delegate of the Military Junta to the SML, but the position was short-lived. According to a former official of the Service, Larraín was not taken seriously by the doctors. He remained as delegate of the Junta until October 12, when the Undersecretary of Justice, Max Silva del Canto, informed him that his position would be terminated because he had “normalized the service”.
A former morgue driver interviewed by ArchivosChile recalls that the day after the coup or the next day, an Army officer gathered all the officials in the auditorium. “He told us clearly: ‘Any chuchasumadre who is caught giving information to journalists, relatives or friends about what is happening is going to be shot on the spot!’,” he recounted.
Before returning the direction of the SML to Dr. Vargas at the end of September, Dr. Novoa left his great friend, retired Army Colonel Mario Parker Arenas, installed in the morgue. Novoa returned to his previous duties in the area of Gynecology.
Parker was appointed through a retroactive decree of November 20, 1973, as “ad honorem coordinating attorney” of the Servicio Médico Legal representing the junta. He stayed only a couple of hours a day at the morgue, recalls Rudolph.
When Dr. Vargas returned to the SML at the end of September, the atmosphere was tense. Military personnel had been circulating in the corridors of the morgue for weeks, and even followed the staff to their lockers to check what they were doing. Carabineros were stationed outside.
Silence prevailed. As in all the services and agencies of the State, it was no longer known who could be a whistleblower. The civil servants slept little, cried and went hungry. They were exhausted, as were the doctors who, since September 11, had no pause in performing autopsies on the bodies that kept arriving.
The number of corpses in the morgue, the conditions in which they were found, the resources and personnel available, the risk of infection and the general chaos caused by the avalanche of dead bodies that arrived at the capital’s morgue made it difficult to perform complete autopsies on each one.
“The autopsies we would have liked to perform, with all the necessary technique, were not done,” said Dr. José Luis Vásquez, a medical examiner who still works at the SML. “The first two or three autopsies we did we tried to make them as complete as possible, but later we realized that it was humanly impossible. We limited ourselves to doing a cursory autopsy, focusing only on the injuries that were related to the cause of death. Most of them, evidently, were injuries caused by ballistic projectiles.”
At the time, the service had about six medical examiners. This was clearly insufficient. The SML had to resort to other clinicians from the same morgue to collaborate in the autopsies, including the director’s son, Dr. Alfredo Vargas Kother.
It was impossible, due to the number of corpses piled up in the morgue, to follow the usual guidelines for a complete autopsy in each case, as suggested in the SML regulations in force at the time. Nor did they comply with the regulation that all corpses entering the IML should be photographed and that these photos should be kept on file for possible consultation by the courts. According to Dr. Vásquez, there were no photographers nor cameras.
In any case, he said, autopsies were performed on all the deceased, without exception, although the degree of depth varied considerably (see selection of autopsy reports).
The legal advisor, Gilberto Rudolph, called them economic autopsies. “It meant that if from the external examination of the corpse the cause of death could be deduced, the examination stopped at the external examination, because there were not enough personnel or specialized doctors to cover all the demand for autopsies. They were almost all bullet deaths, so you didn’t have to look very hard,” he said.
In those first weeks, Dr. Vasquez recalls working up to 12-hour days. Between the day of the military coup and November 30–the period in which the highest number of deaths was registered–Dr. Vásquez performed a total of 292 autopsies. Thanatologists Carlos Marambio Allende (263) and Bolivian Humberto Rhea Clavijo (242) had a similar work rate.
Dr. Vargas and his son performed a total of 209 autopsies, while Dr. Exequiel Jiménez performed 179, Dr. Tomás Tobar 96, and the Bolivian physician Dr. Rolando Costa Arduz, 88. Other physicians – even from other specialties – occasionally intervened in the autopsy room.
Technically correct autopsies
Although the autopsies were limited to examining only the area of the fatal wounds–and did not include other types of analysis–the reports nevertheless correctly pinpointed the cause of death. However, despite the obvious third party involvement in these deaths, often caused by multiple gunshot wounds, few autopsy reports indicated whether it was a homicide, as they were required to do by law.
Homicide is listed as the cause of death in only 118 of the 891 autopsy reports performed on confirmed or potential victims of human rights violations. Of those 118 reports, 83 were signed by a single physician, Dr. Carlos Marambio. Dr. Rhea indicated it in 17 of his reports and Dr. Vásquez in only five.
According to Dr. Rhea’s statement regarding the judicial investigation of the death of a group of residents of Puente Alto in the Bulnes Bridge on October 14, 1973, “between September 11 and 15 he performed at least twelve to fifteen autopsies daily. Even doctors from the Carabineros and the Armed Forces arrived to collaborate in the work because there were corpses even in the corridors.” For that reason, he stated, “the autopsy reports of those dates were done in a cursory manner; that is to say without a detailed examination of the bodies.”
For Dr. Rhea, as for the other two Bolivian doctors working at the IML, the situation was surely unbearable. Rhea had been a collaborator of Che Guevara’s guerrillas in Bolivia and a treating physician of the Argentinean guerrilla fighter. He had been living in Chile as a political exile since 1967, when he started working at the Instituto Médico Legal, due to the shortage of forensic doctors in Chile.
The volume of bodies was such that the IML requested that the public hospitals send assistants. Also, Dr. Vásquez recalls, an attempt was made to incorporate administrative personnel in the autopsy room to take notes dictated by the doctors during the autopsy to speed up the process, but this did not last long.
“Naturally, within five to ten minutes they were all on the floor. They were not in the habit of seeing bodies or fluids. They had never entered an autopsy room before. So we had to do it ourselves. Everything was handwritten by the doctors who performed the autopsies, and that made the process slower,” he said.
According to SML records, autopsies were usually performed a couple of days after the body arrived. However, there were cases in which they were performed one or two weeks later. In five cases recorded in the Santiago morgue’s book of deceased persons (Transfer Book), the autopsy was performed at another location, such as a hospital. In these circumstances, their names were still recorded as deceased persons admitted to the morgue, with their respective protocol numbers, with one notable exception: the autopsy of President Salvador Allende Gossens was never recorded in any book, even though it was performed by two medical examiners from the SML.
On the night of September 11, Allende’s body lay in the surgery ward of the Otorhinolaryngology Department of the Military Hospital awaiting the arrival of Doctors Vásquez and Tobar and the specialized assistant Mario Cornejo. By order of the First Military Prosecutor’s Office, they were taken that night to the military hospital, and at 8:00 p.m. they began the autopsy of the deceased president. The autopsy  lasted until midnight, and it was registered as protocol number 2449/73.
President Allende’s body did not pass through the morgue and to this day, Allende does not appear in the book of deceased persons of the SML.
In the morgue, another body was assigned the same protocol number, 2449: Onofre Castro Hernandez, who died on September 12 due to an illness, and whose body was nevertheless sent to the morgue by the Second Military Prosecutor’s Office.
Identification by loved ones
Once the autopsy process was completed, the corpses were taken down to the exhibition room annexed to the cold storage facility, where the bodies of unknown persons were normally exhibited for identification by their relatives. There were about 90 cold rooms, and according to Dr. Vásquez, not all of them worked. Several bodies were placed in each one. “Under those conditions, it was impossible for those chambers to fulfill their function,” he said.
The bodies were left naked on the ground and, if possible, with their clothes at their feet, waiting for a family member to find them, identify them or claim them. Hundreds of corpses were piled up on the floor. Others remained in the refrigerators for days or weeks.
In many cases, no one claimed them because their relatives were not yet aware of their death, even though their identities were already confirmed by the Registro Civil through fingerprints taken from the corpses. Often this confirmation of identity arrived back at the SML when the deceased had already been removed from the morgue by the service itself, without the knowledge of the families. And even more significant: the documentation of the time reveals that in some cases, serious errors and negligence were committed in the identification of some people, in some cases because the protocol numbers were confused.
Beyond the intentionality or not of hiding the crimes, for María Luisa Sepúlveda, former Executive Vice President of the Valech Commission, one of the main problems was that “there was no rigorous chain of custody” in the morgue.
“The biggest problem was in the custody of the clothing and in the identification of the fingerprints. There was not always neatness. They would go out at night to look for bodies, but it was difficult to establish later that body one was the one they found on the San Martin highway and body two was the one in Maipu, for example. There was no certainty that the data coincided well,” he told ArchivosChile.
Outside, IML officials hung lists with the names of the identified deceased. Although many had arrived at the morgue with some documentation and their identities were confirmed by the Registro Civil — though not always accurately — they were meager lists, “a ridiculous number compared to the number of corpses inside,” recalled Hector Herrera, one of the Registro Civil officials sent to the morgue to take fingerprint samples from the corpses.
Few relatives came to the morgue in the first days, said Dr. Vargas’ secretary, Adelina Gaete, who had to attend to some relatives during that period. “Outside the IML almost no one arrived at the beginning. Days later, family members began to come. We reviewed the autopsy protocols to see if anyone fit the description of the person they were looking for,” she said.
The families experienced another angle of the tragedy: while their loved ones lay on the ground awaiting their turn for autopsy, they went through hospitals, detention centers, government offices, international organizations, military prosecutors’ offices, police stations and regiments in search of them.
The files of the Vicariate of Solidarity on detainees-disappeared in the first months of the military dictatorship bear witness to the long pilgrimage and the endless doors knocked on by parents, siblings and spouses of people who had been arrested and whose whereabouts were still unknown. The morgue was always the last place, the most resisted.
In addition, there was fear. “Outside there were always security agencies and sometimes they detained family members. There were relatives who did not dare to go for fear of being detained at the door of the service. There were many infiltrated civilians who identified them at the entrance,” said Sergio Cornejo, who as a teenager accompanied his father to his job at the morgue.
Nevertheless, many family members came to the site on Avenida La Paz in search of their loved ones. The auxiliaries — and in some cases, military or police — had to accompany them to the Exhibit Hall. “The auxiliaries were also very affected by the situation, and took care not to take the relatives to where the bodies were lying in the corridors,” Gaete added.
Some were not found, even though they were there as NN. In other cases, their names were never noted in the morgue’s admission book, so their presence there was denied.
Ismael Rodríguez found his brother Luis, shot at the Bulnes Bridge on October 14 along with a group of residents of Puente Alto, in an open coffin with his mangled body. He had been looking for him for a week, since Carabineros arrested him with a group of friends, and his family still knew nothing about him.
Luis Verdejo, father of one of the friends arrested with Rodriguez’s brother, found out that his son was in the morgue. He told Ismael Rodriguez and he left for the IML with other family members.
“It was shocking when I walked in. There were hundreds of bodies on the floor, in the corridor, all naked. A man in a white apron and black boots was hosing them down with cold water, I guess to preserve the bodies. Some had autopsy scars. There were children, women, old people, everything. I saw one corpse with his fist up; he was stiff. They could never get his arm down,” Ismael Rodriguez told ArchivosChile.
In the cold storage chambers, they found Verdejo and Leonidas Isabel Diaz, a 14-year-old pregnant girl who had been arrested with them.
“I opened a refrigerator and saw Verdejo, with his face and chest torn to shreds by bullets. I opened another and saw the girl. Her body was cut up and her six-month-old baby was next to her, still attached to the umbilical cord. The baby had no bullets. The girl’s belly was shattered by bullets, but nothing happened to the baby,” Rodriguez said. He then found two other friends who had been detained with his brother: Jaime Bastías and Luis Toro.
Rodriguez approached four uncovered coffins marked “NN,” stacked haphazardly on top of each other.
“I could see my brother, naked, in the bottom drawer,” Rodriguez recounted. “I wasn’t convinced, I couldn’t believe he was there. So I grabbed him under his body to try to pull him out of the drawer. He had a tremendous hole in his back. Apparently he still had air left in his vocal cords, because when I grabbed him, he let out a sigh,” recalled Rodriguez.
 It has not been possible to determine the exact number of autopsies performed by each because the records of the IML note them as Alfredo Vargas, Alfredo Vargas K. y Alfredo Vargas B.
 Dr. Rolando Costa Arduz, Bolivian, was an acting medical examiner. He joined the IML in April 1973 and until October of that year, according to SML records.
 Article 126 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in force in 1973 established that physicians must state in their reports whether the death was the result of the action of third parties.
 Dr. Rhea’s statement is included in a ruling handed down by Judge Mario Carroza on March 23, 2010 regarding a group of people gunned down on Puente Alto. The ruling was published in La Nación in April 2010. http://www.lanacion.cl/noticias/site/artic/20100408/asocfile/20100408155853/puente_alto_2.pdf
 Salvador Allende’s autopsy report was first published by Mónica González in her book “La Conjura”, Ediciones B, 2000. In an interview with ArchivosChile, Dr. Vásquez declined to refer to the Allende autopsy and other cases being investigated in court.
 The Advisory Commission for the Classification of Disappeared Detainees, Political Detainees and Victims of Political Imprisonment and Torture, known as the Valech Commission, classified new victims in 2011.
 Along with Luis Rodríguez, the following people were shot: Domingo Morales Díaz, Jaime Bastías Martínez, Luis Suazo Suazo, Luis Toro Veloso, Alfredo Moreno Mena, Luis Verdejo Contreras, David Gayoso González and Leonidas Isabel Díaz Díaz. Strangely, in the SML records, Bastías, Suazo, Verdejo, Moreno and Ganoso, plus one NN, were listed as having died in Cerrillos. The others are listed as having died at the Bulnes Bridge.
 In spite of having recognized Luis Toro, he does not appear in the SML registry. However, two NNs that could correspond to him were registered (protocols 3303 or 3307), since they are grouped with the other victims of Puente Alto.
- Investigation Overview: The Bureaucracy of Death – Executions in Chile 1973
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (I): Bodies at dawn
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (II): “Cursory autopsies”
- Inside the Instituto Médico Legal (III): From the morgue to the cemetery
- Political Executions: 150 new cases?
- Crossed identities and bodies without names at the Registro Civil
- The black hole of the military prosecutors’ offices
- Military Courts: Execute first, judge second
- Wartime Tribunals: Absolute authority
- The silence of the cemetery
- The strange case of the two Luis Curivils
- Victor Jara and Littré Quiroga
- Bodies floating in the Mapocho River
- Allende suicide: Forensic reports July 19, 2011